Students Dare to Make Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Dream a Reality

A team of UCLA students are working to bring Elon Musk’s idea of a high-speed and energy-efficient transportation system out of the sci-fi realm and into the real world.
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A team of UCLA students are working to bring Elon Musk’s idea of a high-speed and energy-efficient transportation system out of the sci-fi realm and into the real world.

The possibility of traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a mere half hour is closer to reality than you might think.

The image of an above-ground cylindrical track carrying a capsule of 30 people going close to 800 miles per hour sounds more like a scene out of a sci-fi movie or video game than the next advancement in mass intra-urban travel. And while it might still have a place in futuristic films, it has one in Los Angeles, too.

Wander into University of California, Los Angeles’ Hyperloop SUPRASTUDIO, which is located in Playa Vista inside a cavernous hangar where Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” was built in the 1940s, and you’ll find full-size models of Hyperloop pods, meticulously detailed animations of stations and maps planning out the routes from Los Angeles to San Francisco with an intermediate station in Fresno — all evidence that building the Hyperloop is indeed in the works.

If it sounds like the folks at UCLA have skipped over a few steps — building the station before figuring out the physics — that’s because all the technology behind the Hyperloop has already been accepted thanks to Elon Musk’s 58-page white paper released in August 2013. In the document, Musk also points out that the Hyperloop can be self-powering “by placing solar panels on top of the tube,” making it much more energy efficient than gas-powered cars or airplanes. Shortly thereafter, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc. started working closely with the UCLA Architecture and Urban Design’s SUPRASTUDIO to develop the seemingly fantastical idea. 

“The challenge is not about the engineering side. The technology can be applied to build the Hyperloop,” said student Hui Feng.

Feng is one of 25 graduate architecture students involved in UCLA’s Hyperloop SUPRASTUDIO program. Under the leadership of professor Craig Hodgetts, the students are working out all the kinks to develop functional passenger compartments and the stations where customers will board and disembark. Every aspect is designed with speed in mind, from the way the doors slide open to the swivel of each individual chair. That’s because high speed and frequency of trips help keep the price point low, at just $20 a ticket.

With high-speed travel accessible at such a modest price, the Hyperloop has the potential to redefine our concept of distance. A trip to Las Vegas or San Francisco to see a concert or even just stop at a specialty store is no longer out of the question. It also has the potential to change how new cities are built, when operating under the assumption that one can easily travel to another city 300 miles away. That’s in part why Feng applied to work on the Hyperloop. She’s interested in how transportation systems will impact developing cities, not just in the U.S. but also around the world.

And these systems won’t need much space to do it in. The aspiring architects estimate that the stations will be about 85,00 square feet, making them smaller than Los Angeles’ main train and bus facility, Union Station. It will require less infrastructure than would be necessary to build train tracks and move about a third faster than an airplane.

Traveling that quickly on the ground sounds rather nauseating, but the initial acceleration is said to be similar to that of a plane taking off with the Hyperloop going at full speed eight minutes into the trip. And the students are working on making sure its passengers are comfortable and secure.

“We are studying how a human can stay comfortably inside a capsule. We have done the ergonomic part of it and built a full-size mock up that we can actually sit in to experience the space around us,” Feng said.

The students also plan to use virtual reality so potential customers can experience the trip before the structure is built.

Considering several different cabin designs, different groups of students have created a variety of options. Some feature two seats to a row, while some have three. Others are decked out with images of landscapes from the destination city on the interior and have screens on the back of seats. One group even designed a luxurious VIP cabin for those willing to pay a little extra for a premium ride, with their very own boarding area.

Where Feng’s group stood out the most was their design of the station. They differed from some of the more minimal facilities by featuring a community garden at the station’s center.

“The garden is one possibility that we think is valuable to connect the station with the city,” Feng said. “It offers the opportunity for the common citizen, not just the passengers, to enjoy the space.”

Incorporating the station and the entire loop track into the environment is of the utmost concern. While the structure will be built above ground so it won’t interfere with farmers in rural areas, the students also want to make sure the structure isn’t a big eyesore in rural communities.

“There are concerns about the visual influence on the environment because … it’s going to be seen in a very natural landscape,” Feng explained. “We have considered and designed the outer shell of the route to be more engaged with the human experience. We have put on some camouflage and some art designs on the outside of the shell, but that’s just one experiment.”

Design dilemmas aside, Feng thinks the biggest challenge to building the Hyperloop is finding the place to do it. Acquiring the land and then building the entire loop is still years away, possibly coming to fruition in the next nine years. And by that time, Feng will be long gone from UCLA. 

Feng graduates in three months and she’ll say goodbye to the Hyperloop project — but she hopes to be one of its first passengers once it’s built. 

Top photo credit: © 2015 The Regents of the University of California UCLA Hyperloop SUPRASTUDIO team. Courtesy of UCLA Architecture & Urban Design.